Alexandre Desplat sinks his teeth into 'New Moon'

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This year has been a very good year for French-born composer Alexandre Desplat. He's already scored the well-received "Coco Before Chanel" and "Julie & Julia," and he has a trio of projects in the works with some of the most prestigious directors around, including "Fantastic Mr. Fox" from Wes Anderson, Terrance Malick's "The Tree of Life" and Roman Polanski's "The Ghost" (the postproduction of which is continuing despite Polanski's recent incarceration in Switzerland). That's not even counting work on two French dramas and Stephen Frears' romance "Cheri," released this year.

Those jobs alone would be too much work for most film composers, but Desplat's remaining project -- "New Moon," the second film in the "Twilight" saga -- may be the one that captures the most attention, at least for a titanic demographic of loyal teenage girls.

Taking on nine projects -- especially such prestigious ones -- in a single year may have been daunting, but Desplat says he didn't allow himself much choice in the matter. "I just decided that I was going to lose a year, that's all," he laughs, speaking from his studio in Paris. "When you have the chance to work with Wes Anderson, with Stephen Frears and Chris Weitz and Roman Polanski and Terrance Malick you don't say no. I have just never stopped over this past year. So I lose a year but I gain a lot of music."

In a way Desplat is inheriting the second "Twilight" film from Carter Burwell, who worked with director Catherine Hardwicke on the first film, creating a largely nonorchestral score that blended seamlessly with the mix of songs in the picture. But when Summit Entertainment execs chose director Chris Weitz ("The Golden Compass") to helm the sequel, Weitz chose to stick with Desplat, who had navigated the challenging waters of New Line's would-be "His Dark Materials" franchise with him.

Weitz says that since he doesn't read music himself he has to trust Desplat to come up with melodic ideas that work for his films. "Usually we have a talk at the beginning of the film about what the main ideas we're putting forward in the movie are," he says. "And in this case it was the idea that everything is seen through Bella's (Kristen Stewart) perspective, and while there are different themes -- there's a different theme to do with her relationship with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), there's one to do with her relationship with Edward (Robert Pattinson) -- there's one that's simply about longing and heartbreak. They all sort of key off one another. They're all quite closely related, and that's a bit different from 'Golden Compass' in which there were numerous different atmospheres and cultures that we were dealing with."

Movie sequels often carry forward musical themes even when composers and directors change, as in the "Harry Potter" films. But when asked about incorporating any of the ideas from Burwell's "Twilight" score into "New Moon," Desplat is firm. "There is just one answer to that, and that is that I never saw the first movie," he says. "Chris never asked me to watch it and I never watched it, so this film is the only film for me."

And despite the expected presence of contemporary songs in the film (the soundtrack album will be put out by Atlantic Records), Desplat notes that his score will not skate the line between song and underscore the way Burwell's did.

"I never concerned myself with balancing the score with any songs in the film because while I was writing, the placement of the songs and which songs they would be were decided later in the process," he says. "But I never wanted to push any kind of contemporary element to the score, it is much more lush and romantic and with the visuals and the story element I felt that was much more appropriate. There are electric guitars used in the score but they are played in a very different way so it doesn't give you a rock music feeling. But of course there are moments where the score goes into or out of songs in the movie, so what I did for those moments was just to make sure that the intros or exits of the score had a simplicity to them."

Otherwise Desplat's score may be the polar opposite of the previous film's distinctly nonorchestral musical vision. "This is very much a romantic orchestral film score," Desplat points out. "There are themes for Bella and Edward and for Jacob, and there is a theme for the Volturi -- the vampires led by Michael Sheen's character. This is not a new approach for me but for the Volturi I wrote a very dark, slow waltz."

Desplat adds that in addition to the characters and emotions, he keyed into the film's Pacific Northwest locations, which also inspired some of the bigger passages in the first "Twilight" score. "The location of the film was a great inspiration for the score," he says. "You have these wonderful vistas in Oregon and British Columbia and all this greenery and these beautiful great trees, the Sequoias, so you have to make the score big to reflect that majesty. So even though a lot of the film might be on a small scale between the characters, the setting brings more scope to the music."

That falls in line with Weitz's "think big" vision for "New Moon's" new music. "I definitely wanted it to be romantic, and I think Maurice Jarre is as close as Alexandre has to a mentor figure," he says. "I said this is perfect, because I want you to feel free to compose widescreen cinematic, romantic music like 'Zhivago' and to feel free, don't feel constrained, about romanticism. So that was our mandate."

That might sound counterintuitive given that "New Moon" is still a film about vampires and werewolves, and prerelease PR and trailers for the sequel seem to promise more action than "Twilight" delivered. Desplat says that the film's action element is still confined to a few brief scenes in the film. "Perhaps there is more than in the first film but there are just a few key moments of action in 'New Moon,' but the treatment there is orchestral too, and as well I have some very large Japanese taicho drums that create a very powerful feel."

Desplat also avoided referencing any horror movie traditions in his music. "There is tension but I don't think you find any connection to a Franz Waxman 'Bride of Frankenstein' or anything like that. I suppose you could bring in an Ondes Martenot or a theremin," he says, imitating the 1950s electric instrument with obvious tongue in cheek. "It wasn't really appropriate for 'New Moon.' "

In fact, what draws in the huge audiences for the "Twilight" books and movie is a deeply felt teen romance, as well as rivalries and romantic triangles that any young adult can relate to despite the fact that some of the principals involved happen to be monsters. So the film's core melody is its love theme, and this is the only composition from Desplat to find its way onto the Atlantic soundtrack album -- in an arrangement done especially for that purpose.

"There is a central love theme for Bella and Edward," Desplat explains, "but Chris felt that we didn't want to put that out front because in the film Bella and Edward are separated through much of it. Bella is alone and the feeling of the film is very much about her loneliness and her longing for Edward and his longing for her. Chris felt we had to hold back so there is a theme for their longing, but the actual love theme we hear only in a fragmentary way, because we wanted some question of whether they would be together at the end of the movie or not. So you don't hear that theme in its full treatment until the end and that is the end title for the film. So for the soundtrack album it's an arrangement of that melody but just for piano."

This may be the lone intersection of Desplat and Carter Burwell's "Twilight" movie scores, since Burwell's score also featured a memorable love theme for piano and keyboard -- something Weitz encouraged from Desplat. "Edward and Bella's love theme was composed in order to be very simple," Weitz says, "so it would stick in people's heads and so that young audience members could go away and play it on the piano and that kind of thing. Although it's very simple, it's also very affecting. There's a central phrase that felt perfect for that."

For Desplat, the project might seem at odds with the artier fare he's worked on through 2009, but the composer says that's far from the case. "I didn't feel a great difference between this and something like 'Julie & Julia' or the Polanski film. I always try to develop a good relationship with the director on any film and make sure that we want the same things and we're talking about the same ideas, and that gives me great protection. 'New Moon' was really one of the best experiences I've had and as good as any of the other wonderful projects I've worked on this year."
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